With alternating stories, Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (Clarion Books, 2021) tells the story of two 14-year-olds in 1968 who are coming to terms with something big that happened, which changed their lives completely “just like that.” Meryl Lee Kowalski (a name familiar to those who have read The Wednesday Wars) has been sent to girls boarding school in order to be in a new environment after the death of a friend. Matthew Coffin is a homeless boy trying to stay safe from a dangerous situation. The stories of the two teens overlap as they meet kind people who help them deal with their situations.
The alternating voices of the kids did not help the story along as the author intended. I did like the book but I related much more to Meryl Lee’s perspective. That said, the comparison between the kids also helped flesh out the struggles they had. This is a much more mature book than the first two books featuring companion characters (The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now). Although the second book had bullying and abuse, Just Like That deals with more violence, including (spoiler) assassins. When we are talking life or death, the feel good moments of Meryl Lee learning to stand up for herself and struggling on the soccer team seem insignificant.
Maybe that is Schmidt’s point in writing this book: put things in perspective. It’s true our lives can change in just an instant, whether it is an accident or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But by considering the big picture (life, war, safety), the little things are just that: little.
This is a rambling response to a book much more complicated than I have summarized. It deals with homelessness, PTSD, friendship (or not), social class, 1960s politics, and more. I did cry at the end. (But I cry at everything.) But for me, reading this book right after the other two in this grouping, I felt dissatisfied with something. It just didn’t pack a meaningful punch as the others did. It felt like just a story.
I’d say it’s for an older age than the others, so more of a young adult book rather than a middle grade novel. (I wish there was a better distinction for middle school, 7th grade and up.)